Ethan was leaving for two weeks of summer camp and the way I saw it, it would be relatively easy for us. As a family of divorce, we’re often apart on weekends. Now, with school out, he sometimes has impromptu overnights at his dad’s during the week, too. Or he’ll call me at work to announce that he’s sleeping at a friend’s. Yup, we’re used to being away from each other. Ethan loves his independence, and I love mine. Two weeks? They’d go by quickly.
Clearly Ethan knew something I didn’t. A few days before he left, I woke to find him lying beside me.
Mommy? He rarely called me that anymore.
“Hey, Sweetheart. You’re up early.”
He stared at the ceiling. “What if I don’t like camp?”
This surprised me. “I’m sure you will, hon.”
“I’m excited but nervous, too.”
I thought of a word he’d made up for things that were both scary and fun. Airplane takeoffs, rollercoaster rides.
“I bet camp is going to be scun.” I pulled him close so that his head rested on my shoulder.
The night before camp started, I waved goodbye as Ethan settled into Richard’s jeep. Nothing new there. They drove off, and I walked to the train to meet a longtime friend in Greenwich Village. Henry and I trolled bookshops and snuck into a second movie like we used to do in our twenties. I got home late and set my alarm, so I’d wake in time to call Ethan before he and Richard left for their long drive.
“I’ll miss you,” I told him.
They were running late and Ethan was brusque. “OkaybyeMom.”
He hung up, and I took a breath. With the camp’s no phone use policy, it would be awhile before I’d hear his voice again.
Filling the time was the easy part. I had to work, but the evenings were my own. Almost every night I ate out with friends, telling myself as I signed yet another credit card slip that I was on a mini-vacation. On Friday evening, Dan arrived and joined me in my decadence for the next six days. It was the longest we’d been alone together in our three years as a couple, and we lived like newlyweds — delicious meals topped off by even more delicious nights of talking and touch. And yet, through all of this, I felt an unexpected hunger.
I may have gotten used to being away from Ethan for days at a time, but he was always reachable by phone. Now I craved news of him. Every day I clicked on the camp website and scoured the photo gallery. I was like a teenager with a crush, my heart beating a little faster when I caught sight of him, staring at the stilled image for clues of what he might be feeling.
In the first picture I found him in a square of aquamarine, his blonde hair painted black by the water. There are shots of two other kids, each alone in the pool, but their smiles are wide, unmistakable. Ethan’s is a line that reveals nothing. I studied it wondering if he was lonely.
Two days later, I spotted him in the pool again. In this photo, his hands are in the air. I could almost hear him calling to a boy several feet away who’s tossing a beach ball.
But the boy is turned away from him. Was he ignoring Ethan on purpose?
“I just need to see one shot of him with a friend,” I told Dan over dinner. “Then I’ll be fine.”
“Maybe you should take a break from checking the website.”
Finally a letter came. I tore it open.
Hi Mom, My cabin sucks.
Ethan went on to describe how his cabin-mates kept him up at night shining lights and talking. He said he felt homesick.
That night I hardly slept. Thankfully, a second letter came the following day.
I’m not homesick anymore. I have a new friend who looks like me. Some of the girls thought we were brothers . . .
The letter was upbeat and newsy. I felt my whole body relax. Of course he’d needed time to settle in.
“Why was I so worried?” I asked Dan.
“You tell me.”
It occurred to me that Ethan’s being away kicked up my own childhood fears. I’d never wanted to go to sleep-away camp. As a disabled kid who was terrible at sports, day camp had been hard enough on me. I assumed that, far from home, I’d be lonely and friendless. Ultimately, I wasn’t bold enough to test the theory.
One morning, I found another picture of Ethan posted on the camp website. In it, he’s dancing. His partner is tall and angular with dark hair that blends into the background. At first glance I thought it was a boy, that he and Ethan were clowning. But the child clasping Ethan’s hands has the beginnings of breasts.
That’s a first, I said aloud, noticing Ethan’s broad smile.
One shot of him with a friend. Then I’d be fine.
I recall once playing softball in day camp without knowing the rules. Watching the others, I noticed they only swung some of the time. Just as often they rested the bat on their shoulders as the ball rolled at their feet. My turn came and I decided not to swing.
“That pitch was good!”
Though I had no idea what my teammates meant, I swung at the next pitch. I wasn’t even watching the ball, yet somehow it hit my bat.
“Run,” the girls called. I made it to second base.
Ethan loved hearing how I surprised everyone, especially myself.
Now he had his own turnaround story — one that took place somewhere in that small window between his two letters.
I couldn’t wait to hear it.